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Central Asia Report: December 5, 2003

5 December 2003, Volume 3, Number 41

TAJIK ENERGY SUPPLIERS SLAMMED, GAS CHIEF SACKED... At a government meeting on 28 November Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov sacked Mamadruzi Iskandarov, chairman of Tojikgaz, Asia-Plus and Tajik TV reported. Tojikgaz is the national gas company that handles the distribution of natural and liquefied gas throughout the country. Officially, Iskandarov was fired for incompetence and nepotism. He has refused to go quietly, however, and has publicly denied the charges. Since he is head of the opposition Democratic Party of Tajikistan, he and his supporters have accused the president of dismissing him for political reasons.

With snow now sweeping Tajikistan, Rakhmonov used the government session to lambaste all three of the country's top energy-supply companies -- Tojikgaz, the national oil company Naftrason, and Barqi Tojik, the state-owned joint stock company that controls production, transportation, and distribution of electricity -- for insufficient preparation for the onslaught of winter. Naftrason's Chairman Nazmiddin Mirzoev was reprimanded for failing to organize oil supplies around the republic, with the result that the price of oil and petroleum products had shot up, Tajik TV said.

Blaming Mirzoev may have been slightly unfair. Two weeks ago, gasoline prices doubled after Uzbekistan abruptly cut off supplies to Tajikistan to compensate for shortfalls at home, AP reported on 19 November. The cost per liter jumped from 1.5 somonis ($0.52) on 17 November to three somonis two days later. Uzbekistan still owed Tajikistan $1.8 million in petroleum products under a $7 million bilateral contract, according to Yorahmad Begakhmadov, head of the department of supplies in the Tajik Oil Ministry. On 19 November Begakhmadov claimed that the country had enough reserves of gasoline to keep prices at the previous level, but private gas stations were exploiting local shortages to jack up the prices. Presumably Mirzoev was being criticized for failing to distribute reserves more quickly and efficiently to areas where shortages had developed.

Rakhmonov slammed both Tojikgaz and Barqi Tojik, too, for inadequate measures to supply the population with gas and electricity, Asia-Plus reported. Northern Sughd Oblast in particular has been reported to be suffering from power shortages, mainly because the region's main power plant -- the Qayroqqum hydroelectric station, built in 1956 -- is so run down. One solution, which Barqi Tojik has drafted as an investment project, is to run a 500-kilovolt power line from the south of the country to Sughd. The project is estimated to cost $146 million.

Meanwhile, the electricity company has submitted a plan for government approval, Asia-Plus noted on 4 December, for rationing power in various areas of the country in the month of December: 165 kilowatt-hours (kWh) for Sughd Oblast, 150 kWh for southern Khatlon Oblast, and 150 kWh for the capital Dushanbe, the news agency said. Also, on 4 December, at the meeting of Central Asian electricity associations held in the Kazakh city of Almaty, representatives of Tajikistan's Ministry of Power Engineering raised the possibility of buying electricity from Kazakhstan, Tajik radio reported.

Also at the government session in Dushanbe on 28 November was Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov. Given the floor by the president, Bobokhonov delivered a detailed report on investigations conducted by his office into shady dealings in Tajikistan's energy sector. Both Iskandarov of Tojikgaz and Barqi Tojik Chairman Jurabek Nurmakhmadov were censured for accepting in-kind payments for energy supplies "systematically," although a presidential resolution has prohibited such remittances, Asia-Plus said. But of the two, the abuses at Tojikgaz were considered much worse, according to the prosecutor-general. It was alleged that, out off some 42.8 million somonis (about $15 million) of sales that the gas company had on its books over the past 10 months, some 27 percent ($4 million) was not received in cash. Almost 6 percent was never received at all, because insolvent customers managed to withhold payments long enough that Tojikgaz closed their books on the transactions and wrote off the debts. Since 1999, unpaid bills by individual consumers came to 53.7 million somonis ($18.5 million).

Nurmakhmadov got off with a warning; Iskandarov was sacked. According to a resolution adopted at the government session, read out on Tajik TV on 29 November, the latter's removal was due to "not systematically implementing the decrees and instructions of the Tajik government on reforming the energy sector," inaction as the company's profits and production capacity declined, and "shortcomings in personnel issues" -- a common euphemism for nepotism and jobbery.

...ALLEGEDLY FOR HIS POLITICS. Rakhmonov's opponents, however, averred that Iskandarov was targeted because of his political views. He heads the Democratic Party of Tajikistan (DPT), which was part of the United Tajik Opposition during the 1992-97 civil war. He obtained the post of Tojikgaz chairman under the peace accord that ended the civil war and gave one-third of all government posts to the opposition. His sudden dismissal could destabilize the situation in the country, according to members of the opposition, reported on 3 December. They have complained that Rakhmonov has been quietly removing them from government jobs and replacing them with his own supporters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 2003). The Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) has found itself under particular pressure in the last six months, having had two of its senior officials arrested on serious -- or spurious, according to the IRPT -- criminal charges (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 18 September 2003).

That said, Iskandarov's DPT got a small boost on 27 November with a surprise victory in a by-election in the northern town of Konibodom. Umarjon Faqirov, the DPT candidate for the municipal council, beat out both the government's candidate (from the pro-presidential People's Democratic Party of Tajikistan) and the IRPT candidate, in a vote where there were too many independent journalists and observers for the results to be falsified, Asia-Plus said.

On 4 December, a defiant Iskandarov gave his interpretation of recent events. He told the news agency, "My dismissal was due to political reasons, especially our party's position concerning the last referendum on amendments proposed to the constitution." He was referring to the June 2003 plebiscite that approved, among other changes, a constitutional amendment that permits Rakhmonov to run for re-election two more times after his present term expires in 2006, conceivably keeping the incumbent in office until 2020 (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," 20 June 2003).

Iskandarov then turned to the prosecutor-general's specific charges. As for accepting payments in kind, he said: "I admit that there were violations of some government resolutions.... The cement factory, for instance, was paying its gas debts with cement. But I consider that to have been beneficial to our economy." But he denied accusations of nepotism, or making promotions except on the basis of merit, and argued that the company had improved financially under his management and not declined. Debt collection, which had been 19 percent in 1999, had risen to 73 percent this year: "If the new general director of Tojikgaz is able to cut down more on gas use and debts, I'll accept that I was irresponsible."

In the meantime, former Minister of Power Engineering Husein Aliyev was appointed on 2 December to replace Iskandarov. He told Tajik TV that his first priority would be to crack down on the huge accumulated gas debts of the mass of ordinary Tajik consumers, pointing out that Tojikgaz spent large sums of hard currency on gas imports (mainly from Uzbekistan). "We can't supply 'blue fuel' to domestic customers for nothing," Aliyev said. "You have to pay for services."

ISLAMIST PARTY BANNED YET ACTIVE. On 19 November Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court, responding to a request from the Prosecutor-General's Office, formally justified a ban on the radical Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Liberation) by designating it "extremist" because it sought to overthrow the constitutional order. Simultaneously, two Uighur separatist groups and the Islamic Party of Turkestan, formerly the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, were designated "terrorist" and also outlawed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 November 2003). Debate has raged for years whether aggressive suppression of Islamic groups is a productive line of attack or, on the contrary, merely serves to strengthen their underground appeal.

Kalyk Imankulov, the head of the Kyrgyz National Security Service, belongs to the former camp. He lauded the recent ban on terrorist and extremist groups, which he said made it easier for his agency to operate, Interfax reported on 3 December. First, the Security Service can take harsher measures against Islamists in accordance with the law. Second, the ban gives the authorities backing for antiextremist campaigns among the population. Whereas police who have detained Hizb ut-Tahrir members distributing party literature have tended to let them off with a warning or a fine, Imankulov suggested that members could now face harsher punishments. At the same time, he acknowledged, it was not always easy to gather clear evidence that party members had incited interethnic hatred or called for the overthrow of constitutional order, the usual charges brought against them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 2003).

Yet across Central Asia in recent weeks Hizb ut-Tahrir has given repeated signs of revived activity, notwithstanding the region-wide campaign to extirpate them. At the end of Ramadan last month its members distributed leaflets in at least three Kyrgyz cities, and calling on the Kyrgyz government to stop cooperating with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in targeting Muslims as political enemies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 2003). According to the Kyrgyz prosecutor-general, between January 2002 and March 2003, police seized 452 of Hizb ut-Tahrir's books and pamphlets and almost 7,000 fliers, Interfax reported on 24 November.

In the Tajik capital Dushanbe, four party activists were detained on 1 December, Interfax said. Believed to be residents of northern Sughd Oblast bordering Uzbekistan, they too carried leaflets attacking Karimov's regime and calling for the region's secular governments to be replaced by an Islamic caliphate.

Meanwhile, Kazakhstan, which long held itself out as a country free of religious extremism, has been shaken by a series of indications that Hizb ut-Tahrir is a domestic phenomenon and spreading through the country. Since the movement's appearance in Kazakhstan in 2000, most Hizb ut-Tahrir activity has been reported in South Kazakhstan and Zhambyl oblasts. On 4 November, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported that 225 more leaflets had been confiscated in three locations in the country's south (Kentau, Shymkent, and Sarygash Raion). Five days earlier the Qyzlorda Oblast office of the Kazakh National Security Committee announced it had captured and fined party members in the town of Baikonur in the southwest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 October 2003). But on 19 November a cell was discovered in the town of Pavlodar in the north, Kazakhstan Today news agency said. Several dozen leaflets were seized, reportedly inciting religious and ethnic hatred. They were circulating not only at the central mosque, but at the local university. Law enforcement agencies confessed they had not identified who has distributing them. Whoever is discovered behind this incident in Pavlodar, it is a sure bet there will be more like it.

AKAEV IN NORWAY, MONTANA. On 26 November Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev embarked on a three-day trip to Norway. He was accompanied by Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov and presidential security adviser Bolot Zhanuzakov, RFE/RL's Bishkek bureau reported the same day. Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who met Akaev on 28 November, said that Kyrgyzstan was already Norway's most important partner among the Central Asian states, and that further development of trade and economic relations would mark the next step toward closer partnership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). To this end, the two sides discussed mechanisms to protect investments and avoid double taxation, the possibility of developing eco-tourism in Kyrgyzstan, and opening an air route between their countries, Kyrgyz television reported. They also considered possible Norwegian investment in the Kyrgyz hydropower sector, particularly in the creation of a network of small power plants. A joint statement on further cooperation was signed.

Akaev tried to drum up more business in a meeting at the Norwegian trade council, where representatives of 15 major Norwegian industrial firms reportedly responded positively to a presentation on opportunities in Kyrgyzstan, Kabar news agency said on 29 November. The same day, Norway's Defense Minister Kristin Krohn Devold met Akaev and promised to continue military-assistance programs in the form of officer training and donations of military-technical equipment to the Kyrgyz armed forces.

Meanwhile, Norway pledged 1 million euros ($1.2 million) in assistance to Kyrgyz women living in rural areas, and 500,000 euros of additional funding towards a controversial police- training program set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Critics have charged that Kyrgyz police are likely to use their new skills to crush antigovernment rallies and repress the opposition (see "Kyrgyzstan: OSCE Plans Police Training,", 7 August 2003). The latest tranche of Norwegian money is supposed to fund the establishment of a model police station in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Speaking at a news conference on 28 November, Akaev promised his government would continue to work with the OSCE to solidify its record on democratization and human rights, RFE/RL reported. He also informed Bondevik during their meeting of his decision to extend his country's moratorium on the death penalty. Kyrgyzstan first announced the moratorium in 1998.

The trip concluded with an audience with Queen Sonja Haraldsen and Crown Prince Haakon at the Royal Palace in Oslo, where, Kabar claimed on 29 November, Akaev was awarded the Elizabeth Haub Prize for Environmental Diplomacy. The prize is an international honor bestowed for the promotion of international law or a new concept in the field of environmental law. Kabar did not explain why Akaev was allegedly awarded this prize.

Akaev left Norway for the United States. In a bid to raise investment for Kyrgyzstan he visited the state of Montana, RFE/RL reported. The president met Montana's Governor Judy Martz and discussed trade opportunities with local business leaders. According to members of the Kyrgyz delegation, they hoped for help from agricultural experts in Montana, which has a similar climate and geography to Kyrgyzstan, to improve the processing and marketing of Kyrgyz farm products, and the health of cattle. Akaev also said his country sought advice on developing minerals and protecting the environment, as well as investment in the construction and improvement of hydropower operations.